Friday, October 18, 2013

For The Fans: The Wizard of Oz

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

In the past three weeks, I've gone to see three live musicals, which, for someone who isn't exactly musical theater's biggest fan, is a lot. One of these reminded me why I don't tend to like musicals, (see: Carrie); another surprised me by how enjoyable it was, (see: Beautiful); and the latest made me ponder whether it's something only true musical fanatics can love.

That musical is The Wizard of Oz, a revamped version adapted by Andrew Lloyd Weber. Unlike the recent movie Oz the Great and Powerful, which was essentially a prequel, but couldn't use anything featured in the 1939 movie that wasn't also in the book, this musical is basically the 1939 movie put to stage. Most of the original songs are retained, with the addition of a few new compositions.

One of those additional songs starts off the show, with Dorothy lamenting that "Nobody Understands Me." As a song, it's not too memorable, and made me wonder why the team of Weber and Tim Rice--together for the first time since 1986's Evita--were so heralded in the first place. But it does give lead Danielle Wade something to sing before launching into "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." (Because really, you kind of have to prove yourself a bit before tackling such an iconic song.)

The first act isn't very subtle when it comes to all the things and people that will soon be transformed into the land and characters of Oz, but I guess you don't really look to musicals for subtlety. Dorothy runs away from the farm, meets the Wizard Professor Marvel (Cedric Smith), and returns home just in time to be swept up into that twister and carried into the Technicolor land of Oz.

I was looking forward to seeing how they'd handle that tornado, and was a bit disappointed to see the whole effect projected onto a screen that lowers in front of the stage. In fact, most of the trickier effects scenes are handled this way, which is a bit of a letdown.

Once Dorothy gets to Oz, the set turns colorful, almost garishly so. Glinda's entrance is probably one of the show's best moments, and man alive but I wish I could get a copy of her dress. Aside from Dorothy's blue gingham dress, most of the costumes and character designs differ vastly from the film. The aforementioned Glinda (Robin Evan Willis) is decked in shades of blue and grey, not pink, and the Wicked Witch of the West (Jacquelyn Piro Donovan) is far vampier (and leggier) than her Margaret Hamilton counterpart. And the Munchkins? Well, they're far less...munchkiny.

Of Dorothy's three traveling companions--the Scarecrow (Jamie McKnight), the Tin Man (Mike Jackson), and the Cowardly Lion (Lee MacDougall)--the Scarecrow probably gets the most laughs, playing up the fact that he doesn't have a brain with line deliveries like "I HAVE AN IDEA NOPE GONE!" Falling close behind is the Lion, although the number of gay jokes tossed in is either total pandering or just plain overkill.

Getting back to Danielle Wade's Dorothy, she's very good, and I can see why she won the role on that Canadian reality show. She gives her performance enough call-back to Judy Garland without coming across as nothing but imitation; she's got some of the Garland mannerisms and tics down, and knows when to use them for comedic effect. And she's really, really good with Toto.

Did I mention there's an actual dog that plays Toto? And he's a cairn terrier, just like the original Toto? And he's amazing? And that I couldn't take my eyes off of him whenever he was on stage?

Although when you're watching a stage show that features melting witches, flying monkeys, and a few of the most memorable songs ever written, I'm not sure being enraptured by a dog who's sitting still--LIKEAGOODBOY!--is such a good thing.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Some Kind of Wonderful: Beautiful: The Carole King Musical

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

Beautiful: The Carole King Musical is, as the title would suggest, about Carole King, the singer and songwriter whose career began as a teenage songwriter, and pinnacled with the release of her 1971 solo album that ended up staying on the charts longer than any other female artist in history, (a record she held until 1993, when it was broken by Whitney Houston and the soundtrack to The Bodyguard).

Carole King's story works so well as a jukebox musical, it's a surprise it's taken this long to happen. (Although fictionalized versions of her story have appeared in two movies I know and love: 1978's American Hot Wax--in which the teenage songwriter is played by Laraine Newman--and the excellent 1996 release Grace of My Heart, starring Illeanna Douglas.) Of course, Carole King had a lot to do with the hold-up, as it's really her story to tell. But perhaps her releasing an autobiography earlier this year had something to do with her decision to give the musical her blessing.

Luckily, it's a great piece of entertainment, and definitely a must-see for Carole King fans, as well as fans of 1960's rock and pop. Because even though the title suggests it's all about her, she's actually just the lead in an entertaining ensemble.

Framed by King's 1971 Carnegie Hall appearance, the musical opens with a long-haired King, (played eerily well by Tony-nominated Jessie Mueller), performing "Home Again" at a grand piano, and then jumps back in time to 1959, when she was a pony-tailed sixteen-year-old Brooklyn college student (she skipped some grades) and aspiring songwriter. She ventures to the Brill Building in New York, and convinces producer Don Kirshner (an amusing Jeb Brown) to buy a song ("It Might as Well Rain Until September") and release it as a single. But what he really wants is for her to write songs for other artists...

At school she meets cute with fellow student and aspiring playwright Gerry Goffin (Jake Epstein), and they decide to collaborate on some songs, starting with "Some Kind of Wonderful" for the Drifters, and eventually scoring a huge hit for the Shirelles with "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?"

This particular collaboration is one of the highlights of the show, with King and Goffin composing and singing on a piano, then trying to convince the Shirelles to perform it. Which they eventually do, in a moment I still can't quite believe: as the singers walk across the stage in normal everyday wear, they pass behind a lit-up backdrop, and reemerge, seconds later, in a complete costume change of glittery pink cocktail dresses with chiffon shoulder sashes. I wanted to give the costume designer a standing ovation for that one.

Several numbers are set up this way, seeing the composers writing the songs, and the finished products performed by musical acts representing the Drifters, the Chiffons, and the Righteous Brothers. All these performances are well choreographed and excellently mimicked, although the beautiful simplicity of the original arrangements is set aside several times for grander theatricality.

But King and Goffin aren't the only songwriters in the story. Before long, they are joined by Cynthia Weill and Barry Mann, (Anika Larsen and Jarod Spector, both excellent), another songwriting pair, and their friendship and friendly rivalry results in the two teams writing some of the best pop songs of the decade. (Seriously. Check out the show's song list.)

Of course, it's not all hit pop songs and Pleasant Valley Sundays. Carole and Gerry, facing a pregnancy, decide to get married, which, for a while, works out for them, even scoring them another hit when they get their babysitter Little Eva to perform their song "Locomotion." But bourgeois married life is not to Gerry's liking, and soon he begins to stray. Eventually he has an all-out emotional breakdown, forcing Carole to face life on her own.

The show is broken up into two acts, roughly based around Carole's life with Gerry, and without him. The show's biggest fault is that the second act, which actually follows King's biggest success, is given short shrift, and seems a bit rushed through. This might be because presenting her solo songs doesn't have quite the entertainment factor of her previous hit-making career since they are, well, solo songs. But keep in mind the show is getting its preview run here in San Francisco, before making its Broadway debut, and I imagine some of these pacing kinks may be worked out in the future.

Despite its faults, it's an entertaining, surprisingly funny musical that will likely have you humming the music for days, all while marveling, "I can't believe she wrote all of those amazing songs!"

Monday, October 7, 2013

There Won't Be Blood: Carrie: The Musical

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

I've been obsessed with the Carrie musical since its brief and disastrous Broadway run way back in 1988. There was no Internet then, so I'm not sure just how I heard about it, but I knew it closed after a few performances, was supposed to be completely laughable and met with boos--and that I wished more than anything that I could have seen it.

For years it lived in the land of legends, at least until the creation of YouTube, when, at last, we could all be witness to some of its ridiculousness. (The Awl has an amazing rundown of the musical complete with clips here.) Turns out, it really was as bad as everyone said it was, with costumes that included shiny unitards, an opening number featuring aerobics, and a climax filled with lasers instead of fire.

After it closed, the musical's original creators (Lawrence D. Cohen, Dean Pitchford, and Michael Gore) didn't allow licensing, so no one was able to stage a legitimate version of it.

But years passed, and in 2012, those original creators decided to take another look at Carrie. They cut some songs, added some new ones, changed the staging, and gave the musical another shot, off Broadway.

While this one wasn't the disaster the original was, it didn't exactly take the theater world by storm. It closed after 80 performances, never making it to Broadway. But it was successful enough that the writers decided to open up licensing, and it's this version of Carrie that Ray of Light Theater is currently running at the Victoria Theater.

This isn't a campy retelling of the Stephen King classic. Instead, it's played straight, with all the earnestness you might expect from musical theater. Set in a modern day high school (the set consists of a minimal wood frame that looks like the inside of a barn, with location changes done via projections, turning the set into classrooms, the gym, and Carrie's gothic home), the basic plot remains the same as the book and film: Carrie is the class outcast and is bullied by mean girls, which we see as the show opens and she gets her period in gym class, but has no idea what it is.

But this opening bit sets up what becomes the musical's central problem: dramatic moments are rushed through --Carrie is pelted by maybe four Tampax tampons before the scene moves on -- to make way for way too many songs sung by her classmates.

The highlight of the musical is the duet "Eve Was Weak," sung by Carrie and her ultra-religious mother, Margaret White. Heather Orth plays Margaret, and she has a larger than life presence, and a powerful voice. Cristina Ann Oeschger plays Carrie, and for someone who is herself still a junior in high school, she has a great voice. She is a convincingly mousy Carrie since she's tiny, and the rest of the cast seems to tower over her.

The scenes between them are the musical's strongest, but they are woefully limited. Additionally, the character of Margaret is made to be a little more sympathetic than she should be, since she's the person truly responsible for making Carrie's life a living hell.

There's a large ensemble cast, and they do several numbers, most of them pretty forgettable, because really, they're nothing but set-up for the main event: the worst prom night ever.

Unfortunately, the ending lacks any real suspense, and everything happens way too fast. Sure, the 1976 movie is a tough act to follow. The moments leading up to that fateful blood dumping are probably the most insanely prolonged moments of suspense ever seen in a horror movie. And while you can't do slow-motion in a staged musical, you can at least not rush through the climax, and make it clear that the people responsible for the mayhem are actually in the same room.

And if the climax involves blood, and the posters for the show feature Carrie covered in blood, you would probably expect...blood! Alas, while something is dumped on Carrie's head, there's no way to tell what it is, because it certainly isn't red.

The original musical became a legend, and were that version to be performed today, I believe it would be a campy hit. I understand the desire to treat the story of Carrie with respect, but it's still a story that ends in fire and blood. At least give us that.